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On Linking Terrorism and Climate Change

Tristen Naylor, G7 and G20 Research Groups
December 10, 2015

With the world’s leaders assembled in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015, it is unsurprising that politicians should link terrorism and climate change. They have done so in two ways: rhetorically and causally. While the former is a mostly harmless, instrumental rhetorical device, the latter is a largely empty claim with reckless prescriptive implications.

Most notably, U.S. president Barack Obama and French president François Hollande have linked climate change and terrorism by stating that they are the two dominant challenges that threaten peace and stability globally, and that they are the two challenges that are most likely to negatively shape the world that future generations are to inherit.

Linking the two issues in this way is a rhetorical device that is designed to make us concerned about climate change in the same way that we are about terrorism. In technical terms, this is called “attribute substitution.” Linked together, the terms render an abstract, temporally distant, slowly evolving threat more worthy of our attention by likening it a more visceral, spectacular, apparently immediate threat.

Despite the threats posed by climate change being far more catastrophic and the likelihood of the negative effects of climate change being several orders of magnitude more likely to be realized than the effects of terrorism, we are cognitively hardwired to be less stirred by such phenomena, which is one of the reasons why motivating political action on the issue has proven to be so difficult. Such a rhetorical move is — in and of itself — relatively innocuous and is motived by the good intention to galvanize action.

The second way in which terrorism and climate change have been linked, however, is problematic. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon has asserted that climate change could be a cause of terrorism. It is not — at least, not in any meaningful sense. Such a linking is a logical absurdity. 

Indeed, climate change could be a cause of terrorism.[1] At best, however, it — in only some circumstances — could be an underlying cause of other phenomena that may (or may not) lead to terrorism, such as generating social grievance or economic hardship. It is in this sense that U.S. senator Bernie Sanders asserted that “climate change is directly related to terrorism.” But, even in instances where this could be true, the causal chain is so long and contingent as to be effectively meaningless. It is the same sort of lazy logic that allows some to claim that the cause of the Second World War was the Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, the treaty set some background conditions that made the Second World War possible, but the treaty was neither a necessary condition for the outbreak of war in 1939 nor was it a sufficient cause. In no meaningful way was did it precipitate the war; so, too, is this the case with climate change and terrorism.

Asserting such a causal link is to fall victim to another in-built, cognitive limitation of ours: the explanatory urge. We seek to craft nice, neat, linear stories to explain a messy, contingent, largely unpredictable world. The real danger of such slovenly stories is that it implies that if we fix the “deep” cause (climate change), then we will fix the effect (terrorism). It should be obvious just how ridiculous a notion this is.

Climate change and terrorism are two challenges that are perfectly emblematic of a complex, unpredictable world. The right thing to do, however, is not to hide the intricacy of this world and the challenges that we have unintentionally created in it by relying upon lazy, flawed logic. Rather, it is to accept complexity, admit our limitations in the face of it, and act without the hubris of thinking that we know exactly what effect our actions will have.


To claim that something could be a cause of something else is an almost entirely meaningless statement because all it substantively states is that in a universe of possibilities a particular effect has the potential to be caused by some prior cause. Indeed, this is true for most things — it is a big universe.

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Tristen NaylorTristen Naylor, PhD, is the Lecturer in Diplomacy at the University of Oxford. His work examines status and group membership in international society. Previously, Dr Naylor was a visiting researcher at Sciences Po, Paris and the Lecturer in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford. He formerly served as a foreign policy analyst and advisor for the Government of Canada.

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